We had a great time in LA. It was a straight family production, our summer vacation, and thanks to some lucky online booking, we made it weirdly hip rich in style. In advance the social media brain returned me with a long list of recommended taquerias, city hikes, art places, beach tips, and cultural happenings. We got our samplings of perfectly ripe avocado on everything, great Korean BBQ and chicken wings, soul food on Crenshaw, moles and campechana, greasy breakfasts and fresh squeezed juices, and a couple of In-N-Out burgers. (Not the Midwest.) I saw a delicious show of 18th century French drawings and a Minor White survey at the Getty, the Watts Towers, and a brilliant Sam Durant installation at LACMA. We got our star spotting done with no effort (BJ Novak in the hotel lobby! John Mayer waiting for the elevator!). We were in the Valley for two days and then in Koreatown for six more—long enough to soak in an atmosphere. We made two trips to the beach, including for an evening stroll complete with surf rock at dusk.
Over the course of the week there were a few times when the three of us said to each other, gawd, we could live out here. But then I'd think, what are they going to do about the water?
Some scientists who have studied tree rings and sediment cores say decade-long droughts have occurred regularly over the last couple of millenia, and that the twentieth century was by comparison a mildly wet period. Especially as exacerbated by human-caused warming, the current three-year drought is possibly the beginning of an extended dry cycle. Which aligns strangely with what I saw. There is no evident panic and drought seems to have become normal, at least in urban Cali, which uses only 9% of the stat’s total water supplies (as compared to 41% for agriculture). I spotted a couple of small lawns being watered and the traditional unbelievably many swimming pools. There were no conservation measures in the hotel that I could see. At ground level the drought was only visible through the newsmedia, same as when I am at home. Without spectacles like wildfires engulfing mansions, long term catastrophes are not easy to see up close.
What are we going to do about the water? Because their water problems are our water problems.
We who live in the land of freshwater aplenty, where I generally do not need to think about how much water I consume on a personal basis beyond turning off the tap while I brush my teeth—what is our role in all this? The question presupposes a stake because, for one thing, even living between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River does not guarantee access to water. This has been made clear by the controversies and political struggles in Detroit, where shut-offs of water service have left thousands of people dry and thirsty though they live within what was once one of the country’s great municipal water systems, in a city on the banks of a river that channels water from three Great Lakes towards the Atlantic. Closer to home, the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha has made the first claim on Great Lakes water after the signing of the Great Lakes Compact, with access not guaranteed. Thus, water access in our time is a universal concern even where the supplies are abundant. For another, the western states drought will drive up the costs of living, growing food, and manufacturing in California and elsewhere. Though the reclamation nut fantasies of diverting Great Lakes water across the high West are impossible for many reasons, what is likely to happen is that years of drought will force people to relocate to water-rich regions, or remove California from the list of destinations for would-be migrants. The Great Lakes region will probably grow in population as more and more places around the world experience dire water shortages, perhaps reversing the multi-decade trend of depopulation. Attempted land and water grabs will probably follow.
Who can say how things will play out if meaningful numbers of people move into a region that’s been deindustrialized but is stuck with the political institutions of the mid-twentieth century? What resistant political cultures new arrivals bring with them—and with what cultures of resistance we who are already here welcome them—will help determine our shared path.